By Penelope Thompson & Lee Lipp It has been more than six months since our Sangha "got a divorce," and it has been a time of suffering and broken-heartedness for everyone. It has also been a time of looking inward, learning to take responsibility for ways we have caused each other pain.
For seven years, we met weekly for meditation and Dharma discussion and monthly for a Day of Mindfulness. There was much joy among us and a shared love of the Dharma. As 14 individuals from different backgrounds and experiences, it is not surprising or unusual that there were also many issues and causes for conflict in the Sangha.
Our failing as a group is that we did not openly confront these shadows. We did not speak about problems that we did not wish to acknowledge. Furthermore, we did not practice Thay's recommendations for conflict resolution and peacemaking.
Looking backward, it is easy to talk about how we failed to create peaceful means and safe structures in which we could speak truthfully to one another. There were unaddressed issues of power and control, leadership, direction of the group, and strong differences of opinion about rituals, perceptions of boundaries, and privacy concerns. We may have felt afraid of what would happen if we addressed these issues directly. But by failing to shine a bright light on the shadows, they grew larger and festered in the dark, until they exploded.
In the wake of this catastrophic community breakdown, the remaining members of the Santa Monica Sangha have worked over the past months to establish processes of peacemaking, conflict resolution, and Beginning Anew, based on Thay's teachings. We are still fine-tuning and modifying the forms as we try them out.
Each month we have a new moon ceremony. We begin with "watering each other's flowers." Slowly and joyfully, we express our appreciation of one or more Sangha members for something they have done or an aspect of their way of being. In the second phase of the ceremony, each of us takes responsibility for our behavior that may have caused suffering to a member of the group or to the Sangha. This is received in silence, as other Sangha members practice deep listening. In the third phase, we each invite feedback from the others. Perhaps we have been unaware of a behavior in ourselves that has caused problems for someone. After some silence, other members of the Sangha may give feedback, which is received in silence, unless further clarification is needed.
This new moon ceremony is based on two prior steps of conflict resolution. Whenever there is some difficulty between members of the Sangha, the first step is for them to meet alone together, to speak and listen deeply to each other. If they are not able to complete the reconciliation process, the second step is for them to request a fair witness
from the Sangha to meet with them. The role of the witness is to hold loving energy for them and, where necessary, to intervene to assist them in listening to each other with open hearts. If the conflict is still not resolved, it is brought to the new moon ceremony and addressed by the whole group. At this time, both persons describe, without blaming the other, their perceptions of the problem. We meditate on the issue as a group, and then we make suggestions for reconciliation that the two conflicting members can agree upon. If the conflict begins to pervade the Sangha at large, a friend of the Sangha, a fair witness from another Sangha, might be invited to facilitate open dialogue, but we have not had to try this yet.
All of these procedures depend on the goodwill of everyone in the group. The forms alone are not enough to ensure stability and reconciliation. They are only a skeleton that must be fleshed out with loving compassion, right intention, and skillful speech. The new moon ceremony has helped us feel safer and more trusting. We have begun anew as a Sangha to heal ourselves from the wounds of separation and loss, so that we may grow and be strengthened as a community of practice.
Penelope Thompson, True Dharma Source, and Lee Lipp, True Opening of the Dharma, are psychologists practicing in Santa Monica and members of the Santa Monica Sangha.